How to Become a Flight Medic: Duties, Requirements, Certifications, Job Outlook, and Salary
As a working EMT, you know that every second counts when responding to a medical emergency–even the slightest delay can literally mean the difference between life and death.
In most cases, emergency medical response is the job of a crew in an ambulance. But how do paramedics save lives when an emergency is too far away or remote for an ambulance to drive to?
Flight Paramedics (also known as Flight Medics, Air Medics, or Life Flight Paramedics) play a critical role in providing emergency medical services to remote locations. Whether saving lives in aero-medical emergencies, performing evacuations, or stabilizing and transporting patients to hospitals, air medics provide medical assistance where it would otherwise be impossible. It’s an added challenge to a job that already presents unending challenges on a daily basis but one that creates some unique rewards.
If you’re an EMT or paramedic who has a taste for adventure, is not afraid of heights, and is seeking the promise of adding thrilling challenges to your career on a regular basis, becoming a flight paramedic might be a perfect fit.
This career guide will provide a comprehensive overview of becoming a flight paramedic, one of the many alternative career options available to trained EMTs and paramedics—and perhaps one of the most exciting.
(Click here to see our full list of alternative jobs for EMTs and paramedics).
Read on to learn more about the role of the flight paramedic and the required training, responsibilities, salaries, and benefits.
Flight Paramedic Duties & Responsibilities
What Does a Flight Medic Do?
The primary job of a flight paramedic, just like a regular paramedic, is to treat injuries and illnesses. But of course, what makes the life of a flight medic interesting is where those injuries and illnesses are treated.
By using helicopters as the primary mode of transportation, flight medics are able to get in and out of tight situations quickly. But because of the low flying altitudes, the travel risks are significantly higher than that of an ambulance. For this reason, flight paramedics are trained in flight safety and protocol on top of their traditional emergency medical training.
Common responsibilities for flight paramedics include:
- Flight to and from emergency medical situations (though not piloting)
- Treating wounds and injuries in the field
- Administering medication, injections, and IVs
- Patient assessment and stabilization
- Maintaining medical supply inventory
- Inspecting first aid equipment
- Assessing whether employees can return to work
- Transporting patients for additional medical care
- Communication with remote medical control and doctors while treating patients
- Performing advanced medical procedures such as intubation, ventilator management, line placement, and general anesthetics and paralytics
What Is the Difference Between a Flight Medic and a Flight Nurse?
The responsibilities of a flight medic are actually very similar to that of a flight nurse. Both focus on safely transporting and stabilizing patients after emergencies and administering varying medical procedures and treatments. The roles can even seem interchangeable at times, as the two may work together closely during aerial rescues.
However, a flight nurse requires a nursing certification and may have greater authority to administer a broader range of IVs and medications than a flight medic. Furthermore, flight nurses can generally expect higher salaries for their increased responsibilities.
According to the IAFCCP, the combination of a flight paramedic and a flight nurse is the most common crew configuration for emergency medical flights across the United States.
Flight Paramedic Job Description
A Typical Day in the Life of an Air Medic
Much like a traditional EMT or paramedic, the typical day for a flight paramedic revolves primarily around routine and schedule, interrupted (as needed) by emergency calls. However, because of the helicopter’s far greater range over an ambulance, flight paramedics are responsible for more potential patients across a wider range of emergency scenarios.
Because medical emergencies can happen at any time, flight medics have to be on call 24 hours a day. Typically they are called to respond to two types of situations: accidents that are out of range for an ambulance and medical transports where time is critical—when ambulance speeds won’t do.
Attending to patients from a multi-million-dollar helicopter requires several steps and procedures that are not among the job requirements a paramedic operating from an ambulance will need. These include pre-flight safety checks, constant communication with ground control and the hospital, and additional safety protocols that vary depending on the company you work for.
All told, the goal of a flight paramedic is the same as any emergency medical professional: save lives and get home safely.
Flight Paramedic Hours
Flight paramedic work hours are assigned by shift, similar to those of an ambulance paramedic. Traditional 12-hour shifts are the norm in most locations, as flight medics must be well-rested to do their job at 100% ability. Shifts may also include nights, weekends, and holidays.
Like fire and other emergency medical workers, air medics may have the chance to grab some sleep during overnight shifts, but they’re also expected to be up and ready to fly at any given moment.
Flight Paramedic Salary
How Much Does an Air Medic Make?
The Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t differentiate between flight medics and ambulance paramedics. However, it reports that the average salary* of a paramedic is about $37,000 a year (or around $18 per hour), depending on location. The BLS also predicts a 6% increase in job growth over the next decade, a much faster rise than most industries.
However, according to Payscale.com, flight paramedics can expect to earn a higher amount than their ambulance counterparts, earning between $20 and $24 per hour on average (or $50,000 to $60,000 yearly), a number that should rise as years of experience are accumulated.
The higher pay and exciting nature of the flight paramedic job make the position very attractive to many people, so if you do plan to apply, bring your A-game because there’s bound to be a good bit of competition.
There are currently 3,000 flight medics at work across the country and over 200 emergency programs that fly with flight paramedics on board (iafccp.org).
Flight Paramedic Requirements
How to Become a Flight Medic
Specific requirements for flight paramedics vary from one company to another, but for most hiring organizations, the requirements to become a flight paramedic include:
- Being Licensed as a paramedic by a state EMS board
- 3-5 years as the lead paramedic with a high call-volume EMS ground service
- Advanced Cardiovascular Life Support, Pediatric Advanced Life Support, Pre-Hospital Trauma Life Support experience
Additional requirements may also include:
- Neonatal Resuscitation Program
- Certifications such as the FP-C or CCP-C (typically required within two years of initial hire)
- Critical care classes such as the CCEMTP by UMBC.
EMTs interested in a career as a flight paramedic will first need to go through paramedic training and certification. This includes 1,200+ hours of training and their EMT training, which can take one to two years to complete.
(Click here to learn how to become a paramedic).
Becoming a Flight Paramedic Might Be A Good Fit for You If…
- You have no fear of heights or flying
- You do not get motion sickness
- You are calm under pressure
- You can make critical decisions with little to no direct supervision
- You like frequent change and adventure
- You are meticulous and thorough with safety procedures
- You can triage in emergency situations
Flight Medic Height & Weight Requirements
The height and weight requirements are unique requirements for flight paramedics, setting them apart from ambulance EMT and paramedic requirements. While there isn’t an official height or weight nationwide standard, individual companies may have restrictions (for example, some companies may prefer their flight staff to be under 250 lbs).
Exact restrictions will depend on what type of aircraft is being flown.
Flight Paramedic Education
What Training Is Required to Become a Flight Medic?
A specialized degree is not required to become an air medic, but exact requirements may vary from company to company. Some employers, for example, may require additional certifications or continuing education. Others may require a specific minimum time as an ambulance paramedic in a leadership role. Due to its more exciting nature, the competition to become a flight paramedic is fierce, which means employers may add additional requirements at any time to help narrow down applicants.
Flight Paramedic Certification
As we’ve already discussed, becoming a flight medic means first becoming a certified paramedic.
According to the NREMT (National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians), anyone applying to become a paramedic must meet the following requirements:
- You must be 18 or older
- You must currently be certified as an EMT (click here to learn how to become an EMT)
- You must have completed a CAAHEP-accredited paramedic program within the last two years
- You must be CPR certified
- You must complete a psychomotor competency portfolio (proof that you can physically handle the job of a paramedic)
- You must complete the NREMT paramedic cognitive and psychomotor certification exams
The first step is registering for the exam at NREMT.org. The cost of registration is $125 per attempt. Upon completion, you’ll be emailed an ATT (Authorization To Test), including your exam location.
Paramedic certification exams consist of two main parts; the cognitive exam and the psychomotor exam.
The Cognitive Exam – The cognitive portion of the exam focuses on many of the same core EMT principles you learned during your paramedic training program and is graded on a pass/fail basis:
- Trauma patients, and
The Psychomotor Exam – In addition to the computer exam (cognitive), paramedic students must also pass a psychomotor exam. This exam tests your ability to apply your knowledge in the field. During the exam, you’ll be asked to:
- Size-up a scene
- Perform initial resuscitation
- Take a patient’s history
- Make a secondary assessment
- Read an ECG and manage both:
- A cardiac irregularity, such as arrhythmia
- A cardiac arrest
You’ll also be tested on your communication skills—both receiving information and giving commands are vital skills to any paramedic or EMT.
Once certified as a paramedic, additional flight certification, known as the FP-C or CCP-Certifications, is typically required. The good news is that employers will often allow flight paramedics to achieve these certifications after they’ve been hired and within the first years of employment. This means studying and earning these certifications won’t necessarily delay you from achieving your goal of taking to the skies as a flight medic.
Additional Flight Paramedic Certification
Though the exact requirements may differ between employers—some may ask that applicants hold FP-C or CCP-C certification before being hired, while others allow employees to take the FP-C or CCP-C exams after beginning work.
Both the FP-C and CCP-C certifications are offered through the International Board of Specialty Certification (IBSC).
FP-C Certification (Certified Flight Paramedic)
This exam certifies an applicant’s field experience, emergency medicine knowledge, and advanced knowledge of various transports from their time as an EMT. The full FP-C exam handbook, including practice questions, can be found here.
CCP-C Certification (Certified Critical Care Paramedic)
The CCP-C exam is similar in scope to the FP-C exam but with a stronger focus on patient care and emergency medical procedure and technique. You can find the full CCP-C exam handbook here.
How Long Does It Take to Become a Flight Paramedic?
The time required to become a flight paramedic will vary depending on your chosen educational route.
Paramedic training can be completed within a year for someone dedicated to studying full-time.
For those studying part-time while continuing to work as an EMT, courses may take up to two or three years to complete.
Some programs also require future paramedics to have up to six months of experience as an EMT before beginning their paramedic classes.
Paramedics also can advance their training with a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university—though this route is typically chosen by paramedics who aspire to advance to management roles or eventually enroll in medical school.
Flight Paramedic Required Skills
Besides the educational and certification requirements, successful flight medics typically exhibit the following skills:
- Attention to Detail – When flight is involved, attention to detail protects everyone involved. Safety must always come first, gear must always be checked, and mistakes must always be avoided.
- Resource Management – Air medics are often in charge of medical supply inventory, so maintaining this supply, ordering additional items, and rationing distribution is vital.
- Decision Making – Flight paramedics work without the direct supervision of a doctor when treating patients in the field, so the ability to understand situations and make critical decisions is crucial.
- Communication – Flight paramedics must maintain open lines of communication with their patients, their managers, ground control, their operating hospital, and other emergency medical professionals.
- Risk Assessment –Any flight has inherent risks–and flying into emergency situations can be even riskier. Flight paramedics have to assess situations daily to determine risk factors for patients and themselves.
- Flexibility –Emergencies can arise at any time, in any place. Anything can happen in the field, and equipment can malfunction or go missing. Therefore, a good flight medic must be flexible in order to do their job under even the toughest of circumstances.
From EMT to Flight Paramedic
How Can My EMT Experience Help Me Become a Flight Paramedic?
EMT and paramedic experience is a required foundation for becoming a flight medic for obvious reasons. Not only is it crucial training for the transportation and emergency situations you’ll typically encounter in the field, but solid EMT and paramedic experience will also help you stand out as an applicant in a highly competitive field.
Other benefits include:
- Shift Experience – EMTs and paramedics know how to make the most of a 12-hour shift, how to rest when necessary, and how to spring into action at a moment’s notice.
- Proof of Performance – EMTs and paramedics have proven experience in handling emergency situations.
- Communication – EMTs and paramedics understand the “shop talk” of emergency medicine.
- Leadership – EMTs and paramedics working in remote locations will often have to assume leadership roles and make difficult decisions. Leadership skills learned as part of an ambulance crew transfer directly to life on a helicopter crew.
- Organizational Skills – EMTs and paramedics are accustomed to collecting patient information, triaging, maintaining gear, and running safety checks… all vital steps for a successful flight medic.
Beginning Your Career as a Flight Paramedic
Becoming a flight paramedic is often seen as an exciting and possibly life-changing next step for qualified EMTs and paramedics. It’s no wonder it’s such a popular field.
If you’re not already an EMT and would like to gain the real-world experience needed to become a flight paramedic, you should start by training for EMT certification with a program near you.
Earning your EMT certification as the first step towards becoming a flight medic gets you closer to your goal and allows you to start saving lives right away as you work towards that final dream career. Not a lot of jobs can give you that.